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Adbusters is a Canadian-based nonprofit organization founded in 1989 by the awardwinning documentary filmmakers Kalle Lasn and Bill Schmalz in Vancouver, British Columbia. Its primary focus is to be anticapitalistic, anticonsumerist, and pro-environment. On its Web site, the organization describes itself as “a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators, and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age.” It also publishes a reader-supported, advertising-free activist magazine, Adbusters, which has an international circulation of about 120,000. The magazine is primarily focused on challenging consumerism and encouraging environmentalism. It is subtitled The Journal of the Mental Environment and is best known for its “subvertisements,” which spoof popular advertisements. It is published bimonthly in Canada, Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom and offers international editions of each issue.
The mission of the foundation, as stated by Lasn in 1996, is as follows:
What we’re trying to do is pioneer a new form of social activism using all the power of the mass media to sell ideas, rather than products. We are motivated by a kind of “green think” that comes from the environmental movement and isn’t mired in the old ideology of the left and right. Instead, we take the environmental ethic into the mental ethic, trying to clean up the toxic areas of our minds. You can recycle and be a good environmental citizen, then watch four hours of television and get consumption messages pumped at you.
The Adbusters movement began in response to television ads run by the British Columbia Council of Forest Industries titled “Forests Forever” in 1988, in which they used a green washing approach to allay the fears of the public about the adverse effects of the logging industry. The television ads run by the association showed images of happy children, workers, and animals, with a background narrator assuring everyone that the logging industry supported the environmental movement. Lasn and Shmalz tried to counter the message by creating an anti-ad in which an old-growth tree explains to a sapling that “a tree farm is not a forest,” but they were not able to broadcast it via the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation because it was deemed “advocacy advertising” and hence controversial.
This incident triggered the birth of the foundation, which believed that consumers had an equal right of access to information flows as corporations. The mission of the organization is known as the Media Carta, a “movement to enshrine the Right to Communicate in the constitutions of all free nations, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” It notes that the concern over the flow of information goes beyond the desire to protect democratic transparency, freedom of speech, and the public’s access to the airwaves. The goal is to counter proconsumerist advertising not just as a means to an end but as an end in itself. This shift in focus is referred to as mental environmentalism.
In April 2009, the foundation sponsored Digital Detox Week, encouraging citizens to spend a week “unplugged”—without any electronic devices such as video games or computers. The One Flag competition encouraged readers to create a flag to symbolize “global citizenship,” without using language or commonly known symbols.
Adbusters has also launched other global campaigns such as Buy Nothing Day, TV Turnoff Week, and Occupy Wall Street. Adbusters’ sister organizations include Résistance à l’Aggression Publicitaire and Casseurs de Pub in France, Adbusters Norge in Norway, Adbusters Sverige in Sweden, and Culture Jammers in Japan. Adbusters won the National Magazine of the Year award in Canada in 1999.
Some have criticized the foundation for having characteristics similar to the media and commercial firms that it attacks. The glitzy design of its magazine is seen as an excuse for making it very expensive, focusing more on a style-over-substance approach and creating a facade for unsatisfactory content.
In October 2010, Shopper’s Drug Mart, a drugstore in Israel, pulled Adbusters off its shelves because a photo medley comparing the Gaza Strip to a Warsaw ghetto was used in an article critiquing Israel’s embargo of Gaza. The magazine was criticized for trivializing the Holocaust and for anti-Semitism.
Some critics focus on the magazine’s culture jamming, the primary means by which Adbusters challenges consumerism, since it does little to incite real difference. Others see it as an easy way for upperand middle-class consumers to feel empowered by participating in campaigns such as Buy Nothing Day at no personal cost. These critics think that there is a need for resistance against the causes of capitalist exploitation, not its symptoms.
- Bhattacharjee, Sandeep and Priyanka “A Study of Anti-Branding Antecedents With Special Reference to Redbulls, Starbucks, Adbusters and Walmart.” Global Journal of Research in Management, v.2/1 (2012).
- Bordwell, Marilyn. “Jamming Culture: Adbusters’ Hip Media Campaign Against Consumerism.” In Confronting Consumption, Thomas Princen, Michael Maniates, and Ken Conca, eds. Cambridge: MIT, 2002.
- Fahimian, “How the IP Guerrillas Won: ®TMark, Adbusters, Negativland, and the ‘Bullying Back’ of Creative Freedom and Social Commentary.” Leland Stanford Technology Law Review (2004).
- Flam, Helena and Debra Emotions and Social Movements. London: Routledge, 2007.
- Fleming, Andrew. “Adbusters Sparks Wall Street Protest: Vancouver-Based Activists Behind Street Actions in the US.” Vancouver Courier, v.12 (2011).
- Haiven, “Privatized Resistance: Adbusters and the Culture of Neoliberalism.” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, v.29/1 (2007).
- Heath, Joseph and Andrew Potter. The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
- Pickerel, Wendi, Helena Jorgensen, and Lance Bennett. “Culture Jams and Meme Warfare: Kalle Lasn, Adbusters, and Media Activism.” Seattle: University of Washington Center for Communication and Civic Engagement,
- Rumbo, Joseph D. “Consumer Resistance in a World of Advertising Clutter: The Case of Adbusters.” Psychology & Marketing, v.19/2 (2002).
- Soar, Matt. “The Politics of Culture Jamming: Adbusters on the Web and in Print.” M/C Reviews, 12 (2000).